Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Column #15: Neil, this is no time to let me down

One of the best concerts I ever saw was Neil Young and Crazy Horse, on their Ragged Glory tour in the spring of 1991. After suffering through the 1980s perhaps even more than the rest of us, Neil was back.

His comeback had begun 18 months earlier with his album Freedom and its instant anthem, "Rockin’ in the Free World". Like the best rock ‘n’ roll, it was deeply profound and deeply dumb at the same time. Also like the best, it spoke both to its time (Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Debbie Gibson) and to all of time.

It was exciting, like the best rock ‘n’ roll, because it was wrong. It was wrong in so many ways - Neil was 46 and already seemed even older; he was a folkie and a hippie and a Canadian in George Bush the elder’s America.

He had been washed up like Bob Dylan, adrift in the “Greed is good” decade and unsure what to say next or how to say it, just a step ahead of his pals Crosby, Stills and Nash, burnouts turned yuppie symbols of everything wrong with capitalism, drugs and too much pie.

So how was this guy and his killer band able to come back, rocking a hundred times heavier than most other bands half their age?

Because instead of touring with another Baby Boomer like Bonnie Raitt or Santana, which surely would have been easy, Young picked two unexpected up-and-coming underground bands, Sonic Youth and Social Distortion, to take on the road with him.

He was making a statement, and it landed. Social D was a safer pick, a traditional rock band made up of guys with greased hair and blue jeans, guys who looked like they should have been the roadies. Still, they played rockabilly fast with ex-punk-junkie attitude, and they didn’t have a hit single on the radio.

Sonic Youth was and remains, to a degree, a wildly inventive, deconstructed art rock band that seemed then as though they’d rather play in front of a foreign film than in front of 13,000 classic rock fans in a basketball arena.

After getting through three or four songs, none well-received, they rubbed their guitars against their giant amps for another 15 minutes without attempting anything like melody. The crowd, full of bikers of both genders with large bellies and long ponytails, made their displeasure known. But 16-year-old me, who enjoyed seeing the popular people made uncomfortable, had found heroes who would guide me for years to come.

As Neil Young and Crazy Horse hit the stage, we all rose to our feet, banging our heads and crying out, “Yes! Yes!” as the maelstrom of fury and passion traveled from the stage to the rafters. Though the majority of his fans missed Neil’s suggestion that, in 1991, he might have more in common with Sonic Youth than James Taylor, it was still great to revel in the noise with so many others.

A year later, Nirvana was the biggest name in music. Neil was named an honorary “godfather of grunge” and would soon collaborate with Pearl Jam.

He also made a return to his folk roots with Harvest Moon, confirming his inability to sit still or to do what’s working, what’s safe or what's profitable if his muse won’t allow it.

So I’m worried about his concert next week, his first full concert in Louisville since 1983.

For one thing, it doesn’t even seem like a full concert. He’s going to sit down and most likely play the hits on an acoustic guitar, singing things like “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” (He wrote that when he was 27.)

I can’t get excited about such safe nostalgia from someone who’s always pushed forward, especially at such high prices during a recession.

I don’t think the Neil I loved would be excited, either.

c. 2010 Velocity Weekly

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